Friday, May 31, 2013

Correct spelling does matter

Oxford University ranks in the world's top 5 universities. You would expect a professor of English from that august institution to advocate good English. But one such professor, Simon Horobin, of Magdalen (pronounced "maudlin") College, Oxford, suggested this week at the Hay Literary Festival that good spelling doesn't matter.

He's wrong. It does.

According to The Independent, a national newspaper based in London, Professor Horobin said that standard spellings were "a comparatively recent phenomenon, with hundreds of different spellings for words such as 'through' in the Middle Ages. He is reported to have said:"People like to artificially constrain language change. For some reason we think spelling should be entirely fixed and never changed. But sometimes we have to accept spellings change." (I will ignore his split infinitive here and return to it in a later post.)

One such change he proposes is a single standard spelling of "they're", "their" and "there", partly because apostrophes are unnecessary (citing support on this from Bernard Shaw, who left his fortune to pay for a conversion of English to phonetic spelling).

Strangely, he thinks spellings such as "thru" and "lite" should be adopted, even though these, along with some other simplifications like "nitely", have been tried and largely rejected in the United States over the past century.

Professor Horobin also insisted that "spelling is not a reliable indicator of intelligence". This is a red herring, or even an Aunt Sally. I don't know of any educational institution that has used spelling as an indicator of intelligence in place of (where such a thing still exists) a standard intelligence test. 

On the other hand, someone who is unable to use standard English well enough to produce a clear and understandable curriculum vitae or résumé may find it difficult to get a good job.

A person writing a letter peppered with gross errors to a newspaper may be dismayed to find the letter published without correction, perhaps lessening the force of his or her argument.

Let's examine Professor Horobin's historical narrative. It is true that spelling was not standard in the days of Chaucer (Middle English) or even Shakespeare (early Modern English). Shakespeare spelled his own name several different ways. This is enjoyably quaint (and a good mental exercise) when reading books written in the 16th century, like Holinshed's Chronicles, which Shakespeare used as the source for his history plays, or when playing Tudor music from the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book with titles like "Hevene and Erthe", "Pakingtons Pownde", "Why Aske Yew", "The Kynges Morisco", "Quodlings Delighte", "Wooddy Cocke" or "Gipsies Rownde". But would you really like to read a book written entirely with such puzzling spelling?

Since then, times have changed. Especially after the publication of Dr. Johnson's dictionary in 1755, and the American equivalent, Webster's, in 1828, English spelling has been standardized, with a limited number of variations accepted between different publishers and between American and British English. 

If you lived in the Middle Ages, it was normal to spell words phonetically and there was no single standard spelling. But we live in the 21st century, not the Middle Ages, so it is appropriate to follow the normal practice of our time. 

So Horobin's recommendation to be trendy about English spelling is in fact a reactionary reversion to long-abandoned practices. Why should we want to live in the Middle Ages? It was a dirtier, less healthy, less tolerant, frequently violent time.

The notion implicit in Horobin's advocacy of sloppy grammar and spelling is that this is somehow more free and egalitarian, as if correct English enforced somehow by "grammar police" is an imposition of élitist values. Nothing could be further from the truth.

It is the standardization of English that makes it accessible not only to all inhabitants, regardless of location or social class, in English-speaking countries and to learners worldwide of English as a second language. 

Imagine if we stopped teaching and testing standard English. Elite academies, available to the rich, would flourish by continuing to teach good English while the rest would be left to enjoy the freedom to write and speak bad English, denying themselves decent jobs and social respect. Yes, we have been there before.

The situation now is far from perfect, but it is still possible for a child who has learned to write and speak correctly to gain access to higher education. Rather like a school uniform, this ability transcends income and class differences to provide more equal opportunity.

Bernard Shaw's advocacy of phonetic spelling was rational to the extent that current English spelling does provide a few obstacles to easy reading. His oft-cited example is the word "ghoti", pronounced "fish" ("gh" as in "rough", "o" as in "women" and "ti" as in "nation"). Just take "gh": there are several ways of pronouncing "slough" depending on the different meanings. Your dictionary should have all of them, including the place name "Slough", immortalized by a John Betjeman poem. Even a relatively simple word like "refuse" has three different pronunciations, each with a different meaning.

But the difficulties of English spelling are often exaggerated. Unlike, for example, Spanish, English does not supply the learner with letters that will allow him or her to write down every word correctly without having been taught how to spell it. But 80% of English words are written phonetically, in accordance with conventions peculiar to English, just as most French words are written phonetically, in accordance with French conventions. The other 20% do have to be learned separately, but that is a task that hundreds of millions of people with a normal distribution of intelligence have not found impossible.

Until all English-speaking countries can agree on a single phonetic spelling standard for English (i.e. not in our lifetimes), the fairest option seems to be to retain existing spellings. Countless learners of English as a second language studying for their Cambridge Proficiency or TOEFL will breathe a sigh of relief, as will those in schools all over the English-speaking world.

Does that mean never accepting new spellings or new words? Wouldn't that make us fuddy-duddy, head-in-the-sand, totally unfashionable conservatives?

Of course language evolves. We do not speak the same tongue as our ancestors. That is why we have to learn theirs if we want to read what they said in the original, whether that is Hebrew, Ancient Greek, Latin or Anglo-Saxon. 

But evolution is a gradual process. A new word should prove itself before it is adopted. 

The rapid advance of science and technology is continually introducing new words. And as society changes, new concepts arise which need to be expressed in new words. Even so, the new word is often a re-use or combination of old words, like "computer" or "spaceship" rather than a completely new word. There are only so many sounds available.

Bringing in neologisms, words adopted just because they sound different, is more of a social than a purely linguistic phenomenon. Each generation uses slang that distinguishes itself from its elders. In the 1960s, anything we approved was "swinging" and everything else "dodgy", words that sound stale to today's youngsters but made us feel hip at the time. These linguistic fads don't last, with a few exceptions. (I will write about SMS and other modern jargon in another post.)

Instead of separating generations, good English provides continuity that allows us to learn from those who have gone before and leave behind something that may be of use to those yet to come.

The language of Shakespeare has evolved, but not so far and so fast that we can not understand "to be or not to be". The beautiful English of the King James Bible is still accessible to us -- and more poetic than modern translations. We can be confident that future generations will understand the best of what we write today.

Good English also unites speakers, listeners, writers and readers across the globe. The result is a world language beyond that dreamed of by Zamenhof, the creator of Esperanto. For this language to be truly global, it needs to be consistent, without too many incomprehensible variants, although it needs to be flexible enough to accommodate a multitude of cultures and geographies.

Standardized spelling enables people of all social classes and countries to communicate with each other, learn from their forebears and leave literature and science to their successors.

I rest my case, Professor Horobin.


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